I started my weekend retreat at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires with “Nature Journaling” with Lara Tupper. This session involved taking a slow walk—I mean a snail’s pace.

Lara began the session by reading Henry David Thoreau’s essay Walking. She described that the goal was to slow down and notice our surroundings, then write for 20 minutes on what we observed.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a small, wrinkled, green leaf. As the group practically crawled down the hill, I noticed that the leaf had broken free and was floating in the wind, swirly wildly. Within seconds it landed on the bright green grass. The leaf continued to be jostled about as if it were dancing atop the grass. Then the leaf seemed to nestle up to a few large stalks of grass. We continued our walk and I wondered what would happen to the leaf.

As we proceeded through a wooded area to the lake, the wind continued to blow through my ears and hair. Wind just seems natural and commonplace in the woods—a force that will always be there to jostle you. As I watched that leaf slowly glide to the ground, I thought of my current struggle to let go of negative thoughts about my siblings and the recent death of both of my parents. I still have some anger and depression, and have been ruminating over the events.

Does it benefit me to hold on to these feelings like a leaf clinging to stay on the tree for dear life? As I watched the leaf float and dance in the wind, it seemed completely natural, no freaking out, complaining, or pushing back. Just blowing with the wind. Why can’t I be like the leaf—dancing in the wind, enjoying the ride, floating, light, and open to what will happen next?

Later that day, I started the seminar, “Being Still with Skill,” led by Rolf Gates. Rolf is a yoga and meditation teacher and author of two books, one of which I have enjoyed, Meditations from the Mat. I looked forward to getting away from the hectic pace of New York City and thought this workshop might lighten my load.

Rolf began with a brief lecture. He described two mindsets: unpleasant—which focuses on aversion and delusion, and tranquil—which focuses on the here and now.

We can make a choice of how to sit and move. He described this mindset as a pre-condition to determining if we will be connected to the present moment. If not, we can easily be blown off center. I felt as though he was speaking to me, and my morning obsession and identification with a fallen leaf. Being connected to the present moment is very different from clinging to it.

We learned the correct meditation posture: straight back, open heart, and hips higher than our knees. Rolf explained the importance of this knee-hip ratio and contrasted this posture with slumping. Then he asked us how it felt. This seemed incredibly basic but it was an excellent reminder of how thought comes from the body. If you slump, you probably feel sad. I start to settle in sitting tall and immediately felt better. He emphasized that posture is key to wakefulness.

Rolf listed the three keys to meditation:

  1. Wise effort – the balance between hard and soft, ease and effort
  2. Wise conciseness
  3. Wise connection

We then focused on wise effort and what that looks like—smooth and balanced, not rushing, pushing, or overdoing. This hit home, reminding me that I am not feeling smooth or balanced. I breathed a little easier, feeling like Rolf gave me permission to go easy, rather than my usual inclination to go hard.

Rolf then lead a centering exercise. He reminded us that centering is NOT our usual nature, but that negativity and distraction are our default mindsets. To cultivate a more positive mindset, we need to center ourselves, otherwise we will end up in what he called “Pumpkin Mind” where we are just bobbing in the water, jumping from thing to thing. The pumpkin imagery made me laugh—it reminded me of my past 18 months. Just lightening up helped me relax. His story took me out of my negativity and into my pumpkin brain.

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” I love that quote as I have felt that stuck in a negative place.

Rolf asked us to begin our yoga practice with an intention. We are cultivating a path of discernment. Wisdom and compassion are the foundations to being in the moment. He shared how human beings confuse clinging and being in control for compassion, but compassion is not about controlling, rather about receiving and discernment. My tears start to flow as I realize it is me I see in that falling leaf… fearful and frightened as I blow in the wind, an orphan.

We started to move slowly. Rolf prompted us to move in a way that is kind. What does that mean? For me, I have a sore knee, so I go slow and steady. I notice my hand going up and down, I notice my breathing. I didn’t try to do the pose perfectly as I know it will not be good for my knee. I focused on being kind to myself and really enjoyed flowing through the yoga poses.

Then came my huge “Aha Moment,” realizing why I have become negative: I lost loving kindness. I felt anger and depression towards my parents for dying, and angry at my siblings for treating me in a condescending and dismissive manner. I constantly set boundaries to keep my siblings out of my life. It has been draining. I realized that the key to getting myself back is to find loving kindness towards myself, and accept that I am not a terrible person who divorced her siblings for no reason – rather I took these actions to take care of myself. If I can find loving kindness for my siblings, it will free and energize me. So, I explored why they have acted in hurtful ways and realize that we are all from the same dysfunctional family, and that I have also practiced those destructive behaviors. If I can have compassion for them, I can move on.

I shared my Aha Moment with two fellow travelers in a small group discussion. Tears flowed as the burden of negativity lifted off me.

That evening, I enjoyed a swim in the lake, peaceful dinner, and an hour or so in the book store exploring books about the heart. I am on a quest to learn more about how I can cultivate loving kindness.

The next morning—Sunday–is another early meditation at 6:45 am and movement, what a luxury. Then silent breakfast, a Kripalu tradition. It really does make you more present to what you are actually eating. I might have to try this at home.

For our final three-hour session, Rolf shared a few stories about the importance of attitude and effort, including a Penn State wrestling coach who uses Buddhist philosophy to train his team. A 19-year-old wrestler just beat someone that was supposedly unbeatable. When asked how he did it, the wrestler said he just controlled what he could – his attitude and effort.

We talked about how many of us are very hard on ourselves. If we live in the past, we tend to get depressed, but if we live in the future, we become anxious. So, the key to happiness and great performance is to be present, to focus on steady and slow—don’t over-schedule or over-commit. Try to live more reasonably. This is an “Aha” for me as I am always rushing around. What would happen if I slow down… to do better or more?

This idea seems obvious, but somehow when you spend the weekend slowing down, it changes you—you feel things, you see things. I saw my first woodpecker on a tree. You enjoy the yoga poses. Your body doesn’t hurt. You see the one purple flower in a field of white flowers. And, you become less afraid of being that leaf blowing in the wind. Every minute becomes a possibility for something beautiful.

I left feeling peaceful despite the long day of travel ahead of me.

After a van ride to the station, we learned we would have to take a bus to the train. The business man next to me filled me in on the usual pattern—the bus will be late, and I will need to run to the train with my bag. I told him that I just came from Kripalu, to which he joked (with that caustic NYC sense of humor), “ You need to lose the glow sooner or later. Why not now?”

I replied, “Nope I am not losing the glow yet!” and smiled as I took the elevator to the delayed train…. no extra effort for me. My intention is to SLOW DOWN, PAY ATTENTION, AND PRACTICE LOVING KINDNESS TOWARDS MYSELF—AND EVEN THOSE I DON’T LIKE.

I boarded the crowded train and sat next to a family with a noisy and boisterous toddler. I am still smiling about our game of hide-and-seek while asking him not to kick me in the leg.

Horse carriage waiting for customers in Central Park area, New York City.

At Grand Central Station, the weather was nice, so I began to walk home, dragging my bag. Crossing Broadway and 53rd , a charming horse and buggy driver asked if I would like a ride for free! I felt like a celebrity!

I asked the driver why he stopped for me. He said, “I am very sensitive to peoples’ auras and yours seemed really good.” He introduced himself as Ariel, and his horse, Whisky. I smiled all the way home, thinking “who says loving kindness doesn’t work?” What an “only in New York City” moment.


2 Responses to Who Says Loving Kindness Doesn’t Work?

  1. Susan Pope says:

    Thanks see much for sharing your story! I recently started meditating every morning for 10 minutes. I’m following the morning routing in the book “Miracke Mornings” and love it! I attended a women’s leadership course you taught years ago in Boston and still get your emails. I’m going to post this one to my site and use it in a Facebook group I’m helping run that focused on morning routines including meditation. I also struggle with slowing down!!

  2. Cathy Cassidy says:

    Lovely my most insightful talented friend!

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